By Dan Heyman, WVNS
This week we learned that federal budget sequestration resulted in Tucker County ending its Head Start program.
Now the former director of Kanawha County Head Start says she actually accepted retirement to save that program the cost of her salary. Karen Williams retired at the end of June after nearly 40 years in public education, nine years as the program’s director.
Williams says that allowed Head Start to eliminate her position and combine it with another one. It was either that or cut teachers, or spaces for students. “I don’t want to be seen as a martyr,” she says, “but there were cuts that had to be made, and we didn’t want to have to cut services to children, especially children who live in poverty.”
Because of the automatic cuts from sequestration, Head Start is serving nearly 60,000 fewer children in the U.S. this year, 500 of them in West Virginia. With Congress showing little sign of making progress, more cuts are expected.
Williams says Kanawha County Head Start lost more than $150,000, but managed to cover that gap without turning away students. She says the county’s early education program covered a lot of the gap. But Williams says as tough as the first round of budget reductions were, she has no idea how West Virginia’s Head Start program directors will deal with an expected second round.
“Not knowing how they were going to make cuts and not affect the quality of their programs,” she says. “With additional sequester cuts, I just don’t know how they can make it.” Conservatives in Congress say programs such as Head Start can cut waste without the public losing out. But Williams says Head Start is a lean, effective and important program. She says the recent shutdown should remind people how important it is. “I don’t think I slept the entire time, because there were 20,000 students across the country that did not receive Head Start services during that time,” she adds.
Williams says one reason people are so devoted to Head Start is because it helps entire families. She says she’s seen that approach work.
“Maybe their first child qualifies for Head Start, but maybe their baby doesn’t qualify because they have a job now that is self-sustaining,” she explains. “And it gets in your blood.”